Monday, November 19, 2012

Krugman fundamentally misunderstands Sweden

Paul Krugman is profoundly inspired by Sweden. He has stated that the ideal society he dreams of is Sweden around 1980. Since Krugman is working to transform the United States in the image of another society, we would expect him to put a lot of effort in understanding his utopia. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. 

In a responce to Ross Douthats thoughtful column, Krugman writes “In Sweden, more than half of children are born out of wedlock — but they don’t seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong. Maybe we’ll go that way too. So?”

This is highly misleading. In secular Sweden, family traditions differ from those of the United States. Cohabitation (“samboförhållande”) is formally recognized and treated by the law as virtually identical to marriage. Swedish couples typically cohabitate, get children and only then get marry. Statistics Sweden explains:


“Living together without being married has long been common and majority of the children born in Sweden are born out of wedlock, but usually cohabiting, parents. Cohabitation can in many respects
equated with being married, and young adults has been widely accepting of couples with children remaining unmarried. Despite this, most couples choose to married eventually. Of the couples that are followed in this report and still lived together at the end of 2010, 73 percent married, while 27 percent were still cohabitating….About 10 percent of couples did not live together when the child was born, but most of these couples have lived together before or after birth. Approximately 3 percent of all couples never lived together and had a child outside of a relationship.”


So only ten percent of children in Sweden are born to couples who are not either married or co-habituating at the time of birth. Even that exaggerates, since many couples start cohabitation after birth. Obviously what we are interested in about is the child having two parents, not if they are in a christian marriage or secular Swedish cohabitation. Only 3 percent(!) of children in Sweden are born to single mothers. Swedes can afford to be so politically liberal ideologically because they are so socially conservative in their private behavior.


In fairness, when you read that half of Hispanics children are born out of wedlock, that too includes cohabitation. Accounting for later separation or divorce, according to the Census Bureau 18.7 percent of Swedish households with children are single-parent households (this share is lower among ethnic Swedes). Among Hispanics in the United States by contrast 37 percent of households with children are single-parent households. 


The New York Times itself writes: ”The share of Latino children living in single-parent families soared six percentage points to 38 percent since 2000, a larger increase than among blacks or whites.”
  Krugman thinks that children growing up in single parent households in Sweden (like me) “don’t seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong.” This too is incorrect. Just as in America, Swedish single parent households and their children have far higher prevalence of social  problems than intact families. This in-depth study of absolute poverty in Sweden finds

“The risk for poverty is more than three times as high among children of single parents compared with children of cohabiting parents, 28.2 and 9.1 percent in 2009.”
 

Prominent left of center economist Anders Björklund and co-authors directly compare outcomes for children living in non-intact families in the United States and Sweden: 

“In this paper we compare the relationships between family structure and children’s outcomes in terms of educational attainment and earnings using data from Sweden and the United States. Comparing the United States and Sweden is interesting because both family structure and public policy environments in the two countries differ significantly. Family structure could potentially have a less negative effect in Sweden than in the United States because of the extensive social safety net provided by that country. We find, however, the associations between family structure and children’s outcomes to be  remarkably similar in the United States and Sweden even though the policy and social environments differ between the two countries; living in a non-intact family is negatively related to child outcomes.”

In both Sweden and the United States, children of single-mothers earn less and are less likely to go to college. We don’t know for sure to what extent this is caused by single-parenthood itself or by confounding effects. In both countries single-parenthood is correlated with less social capital and other problems that both cause single-parenthood itself and other undesirable outcomes. This does not change the fact that population groups characterized by single parenthood have worse outcomes even in welfare states. 


Krugman thinks that because of the Swedish welfare state, it doesn’t matter if families arebroken, they and their kids do fine anyway. As shown above this is incorrect, Krugman is relying on utopian theories about how Sweden works rather than empirical analysis about how it actually works. 


The main problem is not that liberals like Krugman have childish fantasies about Sweden. It is that they are  proposing radical social engineering of the United States based on their superficial understanding of Sweden. Krugman's response to Ross Douthats about the U.S moving towards non-intact families through the twin forces of demographic transformation and social breakdown was thus “Maybe we’ll go that way too. So?” works.  

Let me spell out what Ross Douthat is trying to say Paul. After decades of intense competition, liberals have finally and permanently triumphed against Conservatives. However you didn't do it it by convincing existing Americans to adopt a welfare state. If the composition of the electorate was what it was a couple of decades ago, Romney would have won in a landslide. Liberals triumphed through the twin forces of demographics transformation and social breakdown. 

The defining characteristic of Sweden in 1980 was not that it had high marginal taxes; it was that it was a homogenous society with intact families, high trust and stratospheric levels of social capital. Because of the way through which the American left triumphed, rather than realizing your dream of recreating Sweden in 1980 you are going to end up with a more unequal, more socially dysfunctional and less cohesive America than we have today, let alone Sweden in 1980. 


UPDATE

National Review's research-wonk Reihan Salam commented on this blog-post, concluding:

Suffice it to say, this isn’t the last word on the matter. There is near-invincible confidence in the potential of the Swedish social model to mitigate the consequences of family breakdown in some quarters, and no doubt some observers will conclude that it is the Swedish welfare state itself that holds families together.

We can shed some light on this matter through my usual method of using Americans who report Swedish ancestry as a control group. Using the American Community Survey 2006-2010, I estimate the percentage of unmarried households among households with children. 

Among Americans with Swedish ancestry born in the United States, the share is 18.1 percent. This is similar to the Swedish numbers, below the U.S national average and below the average for non-Hispanic whites. Let me emphasize that these are Americans with Swedish ancestry born in the United States. They hence live under the American system and are uninfluenced by the Swedish welfare state. The fact that Swedish-Americans have similar outcomes to families in Sweden indicates that culture and social capital are more important explanations for Swedish family stability than economic policy.

15 comments:

  1. Douthat points out something the conservatives have failed to do properly - the gradual social meltdown. prosperity and social safety net makes single parent households viable but it is still no match for functional 2 parent families. this is an area where social conservatives have to make progress but there will need to be a shift in approach. instead of criticizing they will need to offer a helping hand to those in need. most of single women would love to have a reliable partner but the poorly understood feminism, general personal narcisism, sexual liberty, et al. make the compromise within a couple difficult. whoever has been in a long term relationship know that there is no magic way to reach marital bliss. however the traditional values of the monotheistic religions, properly and moderately applied do help sustain a couple. to make a relationship work one has to sacrifice him/herself a bit to be able to give more and receive less for long periods of time.

    again coming to mentality - one big issue the feminism has missed is that within a couple is not all about equality, but about complementarity. there are things a woman can do better and there are things a man can do better. the ultimate feminists are driven by the desire to prove that women can do everything as good or better than men. which it may be more or less true. but it misses the point.

    A man can be made better by a wise woman and this would provide not just benefit to herself and the couple but also to the children and society as a whole. most of the societal problems are caused by man idleness. we have been experiencing feminism for several decades but this was done at the expense of ignoring the hollowing out of manhood. at some point we have to acknowledge that upholding feminist values unwisely can make men a problem. Already men, especially lower or medium qualified men, have a harder time on the job market. And a lot of young men have a hard time finding a way out of college dorm stage. This is a lot of wasted human potential.

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  2. Maybe it is better to be a single mother in Sweden in 1980 than most other places. Not utopia, but better.

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  3. Well written and spot-on as usual. Krugman's "understanding" of Sweden seems, to say the least, flawed and misguided (and even worse, misguiding, since many take him serious). He has neither bothered to look into how it actually was in the 1980's, nor contextualized any relevant data.

    The US will never turn into any Swedish utopia under current and near future circumstances. The present democratist and neoconservative third way policies are perhaps rather convenient for minorities (certain groups and individuals) in the short-term, but can never impede the ineluctable decline.

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  4. Do you have any thoughts on my video - Out of wedlock birth in Sweden - Tino Sanandaji http://youtu.be/tsoc3a_AoeM

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  5. Intresting video electriczara:

    Around 3 percent or so are single mothers at birth. A higher percentage (around 18-19) are single parents due to divorse/seperation later.

    In Sweden they will give you benefits if you don’t work, but not £90.000. Unemployment benefit for example is capped at around £25.000 per year, you don’t get more than this even if you were a millionaire.

    People should be informed and know that if they are single and get children, they and their children are likely to have more problems than two-parent families. This is true also in the Swedish, despite the welfare state.

    The welfare state can give you money for food and clothing, but the welfare state will not come read to your kids, teach them values, take them to soccer-practice or help them with their homework. Children of single-mothers in Sweden are less likely to go to college than others, despite the fact that college is free. If people know the facts and decide to get children anyway that is their choise.

    To answer your question my guess is that the welfare state makes it more comfortable to be a single parent, which is a good thing. But the reason there are fewer single parents in Sweden is that Swedes still have very strong puritan norms. Swedes had very little single-motherhood before there was any welfare state. People of Swedish origin in the United States are less likely to be single parents. One thing I didn’t mention in the blog post is that Swedes have liberal attitude towards of abortion, which reduces single parenthood.

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  6. To avoid confustion:

    Share of children born out of wedlock, share of children in single-parent households and share of households with children which are single parent are three distinct measures (though the last two appear to correspond closely).

    If you are born out of wedlock your mother could still cohabitate with your father, or move in together later, or find another partner and move in with him. On the other hand children born in wedlock can have single parents due to separation.

    For example 53 percent of Hispanics are born out of wedlock, but only around 35 percent of Hispanics children live in single parent households.

    In 2011 about 72 percent of African-American births were to unwed mothers. However it appears that around 55 percent of African American children live with a single parent, plus another 5.5 percent who live with their grandparents.

    https://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-126.pdf

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  7. Reihan Salam has an additional update

    http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/333867/uneven-distribution-social-capital-us-reihan-salam

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  8. Very clear-sighted analysis, as usual.

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  9. "One thing I didn’t mention in the blog post is that Swedes have liberal attitude towards of abortion, which reduces single parenthood."

    Do you have any evidence for that? Abortion rates vary enormously between different countries.
    One quick test would be to compare Russia, which has more abortions than live births, to Poland, where abortion is virtually non-existent.

    I couldn't find anything with Google. Do you know where to look for publicly accessible single motherhood data?

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  10. Sweden has nearly 40.000 abortions per year, around 1.6 times more abortion per women than United States.

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  11. According to even the Huffington Post, Sweden was the 4th wealthiest country in the world in 1969. By 1990 and after 2 decades of essentially Krugman and Keynes 101, the country fell all the way to 17th. Why anyone would even acknowledge this crazy person any more is perplexing to me.

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  12. Will: In 1990 government spending was 57 percent of Swedish GDP, now it is 47 percent of GDP. Sweden has increased to 9th wealthiest among OECD countries.

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    1. Good to see that they are reversing course (a course that also seems to be working in Estonia, no?).

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  13. Will: Swedes work less and have more free time (which is a choice society has made) than people in the US. That explains a big part of the difference in GDP per capita.

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  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

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